A good meat thermometer can make the difference between a perfectly rare steak and one that’s just a bit chewier than you’d like it. After all, the temperature difference is just five to 10 degrees. While you can guesstimate based on look and feel, you’d probably rather know for sure, especially if you’re the one hosting dinner.
Over the course of one month, we put 13 different meat thermometers through a series of tests to figure out which ones will make you the meat master and which ones you should skip. Ultimately, we narrowed it down to four models that performed well across the board.
Best instant-read thermometer: ThermoWorks Thermapen One
$105 at Thermoworks
The price of the Thermapen One may make you raise an eyebrow, but based on our testing, it’s worth every penny. While it doesn’t quite register temperature in one second or less, as advertised, it comes pretty close. Each reading took just over two seconds and compared against our reference sous vide device was accurate down to the tenths of a degree.
The backlit display is easy to read and the digits automatically adjust their orientation when holding the thermometer vertically — something that was exclusive to this model. The probe was attached on a hinge mechanism that allowed us to adjust the angle according to our needs and it had an ergonomic design that made gripping it effortless.
A stylish instant-read thermometer: OXO Good Grips Thermocouple Thermometer
$104.95 $94.50 at Amazon
The OXO Good Grips Thermocouple Thermometer was neck and neck with the ThermoWorks Thermapen One. It had consistently accurate temperature readings, the same hinge design and a quick reading time — it was less than one second slower than the Thermapen One.
Ultimately, we just liked the design and display of the Thermapen better. While this thermometer was also easy to read, the Thermapen One fit better in our hands and was easier to grip when taking temperature inside the oven. These are minor differences, though, and you’d be happy with either pick.
Best budget instant-read thermometer: Kizen Digital Meat Thermometer
$29.99 $18.99 at Amazon
For such a low price, the Kizen performed surprisingly well. It registered temperature in less than four seconds and was almost as accurate as the Thermapen One, reading just 0.5 degrees short for the turkey. We didn’t love the design or the display as much, but it has a manual light option and it was the easiest digital thermometer to calibrate, so it earned some extra points for that. It also has a meat doneness chart printed directly on its face. It made the overall appearance a little busy, but it adds a layer of convenience since you can quickly reference it when cooking if you’re unsure of proper meat temperatures.
Best leave-in thermometer: ThermoWorks Chef Alarm
$65 at Thermoworks
As a leave-in thermometer, the ThermoWorks Chef Alarm is in a slightly different category than the others. This meat thermometer was so accurate and stable during our sous vide tests that we ended up using it as a control when cooking turkey and tempering chocolate for our testing.
While slightly slower than the digital instant reads, the ThermoWorks Chef Alarm still registered temperature in an impressively quick five seconds. For these types of thermometers, response time is less important anyway since they stay in the meat while it’s cooking and five seconds is fast enough to track temperature changes accurately.
While the display is a little busy — it shows min and max temperatures, current temperature, high and low alarms with adjustable target temperatures and a timer — all of that information helps make the Chef Alarm the most versatile of the bunch.
It has magnets on the back so you can mount it on the microwave or oven door while cooking. Alternatively, it folds so it can stand on its own on the counter. And it was the only thermometer that came with a zippered case, which was a nice touch that put it over the edge in terms of convenient storage and cleanup.
How and why to use an instant-read thermometer
If you’re only familiar with meat thermometers from the yearly ritual of sticking a slow, slightly rusty analog model into a Thanksgiving turkey and hoping for the best, today’s instant-read thermometers are likely to be a revelation. The best models give you accurate temperature readings in only a few seconds and others can withstand high temperatures for long periods, giving you tons of options for cooking, whether you need to quickly check the ribs you’ve got going on the charcoal grill or you want to continuously monitor (and even get alerts on) the temperature of anything from a roast to a pot of chocolate.
To use an instant-read thermometer, you simply insert the end of the tool’s thin probe section quickly into whatever you’re assessing, and you get a reading in a few seconds (less than two seconds for our overall pick). Most of the models on the market that we liked feature swiveling or otherwise repositionable displays, often with backlighting, making it possible to get a reading quickly even in cramped, crowded ovens or over a fiery grill.
With a leave-in thermometer, you simply insert the probe and either check on it visually or set alarms that let you know when you’ve reached the desired temperature. While these units are bigger and bulkier than the instant reads, they are also a lot faster than any old-school analog unit, with measurement times well under 10 seconds, so they can give you quick readings in a pinch as well.
One note — if you use an induction stove or cooktop, there is a possibility that it might interfere with an instant-read thermometer, in which case you’ll need to turn the burner off momentarily while you take a measurement and then turn it back on. Since instant reads are so fast, you don’t sacrifice much by doing so.
How we tested
After scouring through online user reviews and product spec sheets, we narrowed down our list to 13 meat thermometers that we thought were worth testing. We measured each thermometer’s performance, recording things like accuracy, speed of read, stability of read and ease of use.
We made sure to include different categories — digital instant reads, analog and leave-in thermometers — but rather than choosing a best of in each category, we compared them all to one another with a series of tests to determine which ones would give you the best results, and the most enjoyable user experience overall.
- Accuracy: We used a sous vide cooker to keep a hot water bath at a constant 165 degrees Fahrenheit, the recommended temperature of cooked poultry. We immersed the probe of each thermometer into the water bath and recorded how close it was to the registered sous vide temperature. We also cooked a turkey and measured the temperature with each thermometer, comparing the results.
- Speed of read: During our sous vide test, we also tested the speed of each thermometer’s read with a stopwatch. As soon as the probe entered the water, we started the stopwatch and stopped it when the temperature capped out.
- Stability of read: We held each thermometer in the water bath for 20 seconds to see if there were any changes in the thermometer’s reading when immersed in a controlled temperature setting.
- Ease of use: While this is more of a subjective measure, we took notes on how easy each thermometer was to use, including while taking temperatures, calibrating, changing the batteries and storing.
- Visibility of display: We factored in how easy it was to read the display, both in and out of the oven. We considered the size of the font and, for the digital thermometers, whether or not the display was backlit.
- Ease of calibration: Most of the thermometers were properly calibrated right out of the box, but we investigated and tested the calibration method and factored this into our decision.
- Extra features: We also considered whether the thermometer had extra features, like smart sensing, programming or alarm alerts. Ultimately, we decided this wasn’t a major contributing factor in our decision-making process, since accuracy of read and ease of use trumped any extras, especially when comparing models in different categories.
- Length and adjustability of probe: The length of the probe wasn’t a major factor for the leave-in thermometers, but it was a consideration for the digital instant reads. Part of our testing was seeing if the probes were long enough to safely measure a cooked turkey’s temperature without your fingers getting too close to the heat. They all were similar in this regard, so something that we weighed more heavily in our decision-making was whether or not the probe was moveable (i.e., on a hinge design or stick straight).
Other meat thermometers we tested
$55.99 at Amazon
The Lavatools Javelin Pro was one of our favorite thermometers design-wise, but it wasn’t as accurate as the other digital instant reads. While the backlit display was easy to read and registered temperature down to the tenths of a degree, it consistently read about two degrees higher than the actual temperature. We wouldn’t say this warrants writing it off completely, but there was nothing about it that stood out over the other similar models.
$16.95 at Amazon
While we didn’t love the Polder Classic Digital thermometer as much as the ThermoWorks Chef Alarm, it still did a decent job at a fraction of the price. The display was easier to read since there were fewer measurements, but it had limited function in comparison and it didn’t feel as well built and sturdy. The response time was a bit slower — around eight seconds — during our sous vide testing, but it was right on temperature-wise. The end temperature reading for the turkey was two degrees off from the Chef Alarm.
Like the Chef Alarm, the Polder Classic Digital can be mounted to the side of a pot or pan with magnets or folded to stand on its own. The silicone-wrapped cord was a nice touch that made it easier to manage when leaving it in meat that was cooking in the oven. Unlike thermometers with wire cords, its cord didn’t get stuck or tangled. Plus, it has some additional features, like a memory function that remembers the last set temperature, which is a convenient option for meal prep or batch cooking. Overall, these additional touches weren’t enough to beat out the performance and overall user experience of the Thermoworks Chef Alarm, but they’d make this a good pick depending on your needs.
$8.80 $7.99 at Amazon
The least impressive of the bunch, the Taylor Instant-Read Thermometer fell short in accuracy and overall user experience. Even after a couple rounds of calibration, it was consistently three to five degrees off target during our sous vide testing and when compared to the other models when we were cooking the turkey. It was also so small that it was the most difficult thermometer to read. The sleeve doubled as a wrench, which made things convenient for calibration, but the inaccuracy outweighed the novelty of this feature.
$27.99 $18.69 at Amazon
If you’re looking to keep track of what you’re doing in the oven and want a leave-in thermometer rather than a digital instant read but don’t want to spend your money on the ThermoWorks Chef Alarm, then the ThermaPro Digital Food Thermometer is a decent option for about half the price. It wasn’t quite as accurate as the Chef Alarm, reading about two to five degrees short depending on the test, but its display was more user-friendly and easier to read. It also felt more secure when mounting it with the magnets since it was considerably smaller.
$35 at Thermoworks
While the ThermoWorks ThermoPop got decent ratings across the board, it was edged out by the top picks, which beat it out in design, accuracy and speed of read. It was considerably slower than some of the other instant reads and fell one to two degrees short during our sous vide tests. While it did finally get to 165 degrees Fahrenheit on the dot when we were cooking the turkey, it took an average of 15 seconds, compared to the two seconds of the top pick.
Rather than a hinge design like the fancier ThermoWorks devices, the less expensive ThermoPop uses a stick straight design, which limits placement options and readability, especially when we were trying to check temperature in the oven. If you don’t want to shell out a lot of money for the top digital read picks, then this is an option that you’ll probably be happy with for around one-third of the price.
$16.95 at Amazon
The OXO Good Grips Chef’s Precision Analog Leave-In Meat Thermometer was the most accurate of the analog group, but it still fell a couple of degrees short in accuracy in most tests. It consistently read two to three degrees below the target, and since the range didn’t go below 120 degrees Fahrenheit, there was no way to calibrate it with an ice bath. It had the smallest temperature range of all the thermometers we tested, which makes sense since it’s marketed as a meat thermometer, but that definitely limits its use.
It was also significantly larger than the other analog options, which made it easier to read but more difficult to store away in a drawer. If you’re looking for a simple meat thermometer without any of the bells and whistles, then this one will get the job done.
$12.99 at Bed Bath and Beyond
Another analog option from OXO, the Good Grips Analog Instant-Read Meat Thermometer didn’t live up to its promises. It took close to 27 seconds to register temperature — almost the exact same time it took the OXO Good Grips Chef’s Precision Analog Leave-In Meat Thermometer — and the temperature was consistently three to four degrees short of the target, even though it was showing that it was properly calibrated during the ice bath.
It also had a small face and markings spaced out every five degrees rather than every degree like the other analogs. This made it more difficult to read and less accurate since the exact temperature is somewhat left up to interpretation.